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In 1961, US experts knew that the Soviets had only four ICBMs


In a discussion with Paul Jay of the Real News, Daniel Ellsberg revealed that the US discovered - through a top-secret operation -that the USSR had only four(!) ICBMs back in 1961. This meant that the Soviets were very far from becoming a serious threat for the West. However, the false picture of the 'Soviet threat' remained powerful in order to permit the US to justify its frenzy nuclear armament race.

Ellsberg explains:

The estimate of 40 to 60 [Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles] - which was pretty much in 1962 at the time of the missile crisis based on a lot of satellite photography - was much lower than was estimated earlier, from ‘58, ‘59, ‘60.

The Air Force had a higher estimate. Even the CIA official estimate in 1961 was well over 100. The State Department estimated like 160. The Air Force was much higher than that. And in August of 1961, the then commander of Strategic Air Command, Thomas Power, believed that there were then 1000 Soviet ICBMs. This was the time when the estimate was much lower, between 120 and 160. But 1000 is what he believed.

The intelligence communities, perceived and projected the image of Stalin’s Russia and then his successors as Hitler with nuclear weapons, and that they would bend every effort to achieve the ability to destroy us, or at least to blackmail us into submission. And since they had achieved ICBMs launching faster than we had - that was almost the one point on which we didn’t lead the arms race - it was assumed that they would move ahead quickly, build a lot of ICBMs so they would have this capability against our bomber bases before we had ICBMs.

Just after the estimate of the 1000 in August [1961], in September we finally got full coverage of the ICBM possible sites in Russia with our satellites, which were a very secret program, which my colleagues at Rand were not privy to at Top Secret level. It was higher than Top Secret.

People made a security lapse, in a way. I was there, and saw a new estimate. And was told in a security breach, in a way, which was almost unprecedented. People told me something that I didn’t have the clearance for. And I couldn’t share it with Rand, because we would all have lost our access had I spread this around. The news was this: that what the Soviets had at that time was four ICBMs. Not 40, not 160, not 1000, but 4.

That remained, by the way, relatively unknown to the public very late in the game. Even Richard Rhodes’ excellent book - his second book on the nuclear program, on the H-bomb - many years later was still saying that what they [Soviets] had then was not what had been predicted, but only 40. But that’s ten times more than they actually had. They had essentially nothing. They had not sought a first strike force at all, which they could have had with their original missiles, inefficient and large and clumsy as they were.

It should have led to a whole reconsideration of the framework here, because it wasn’t just that they couldn’t afford to. They clearly hadn’t felt that was high priority to have that capability. The notion that they were aching to take over Western Europe at the earliest possibility, or to destroy the US as their main rival, was clearly something wrong with it. And it was actually wrong.

We now know that Khrushchev, in this respect, was like Gorbachev. He wanted to cut down spending on the military all together, and nuclear weapons in general. And yes, he almost certainly would have done that. Actually they proposed things like that, but didn’t take that seriously at all. We needed the missiles. We wanted the missiles, in part for political economic reasons in 1961.

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